In Extremity and Loving It

Jennifer Kelly
Sons & Daughters | Photo by Adrian Smith

Fifty-eight bands and two aching ear canals later, Jennifer Kelly offers up some guiding lights for next year.

SXSW, with its 1,500 bands and scores of venues, is probably a different festival for everyone who attends it. Oh, sure, you’d have to work hard to miss the Mae Shi, who played 18 shows this week (including a Sunday night bash for the kids at Beerland after everyone had gone home), and an awful lot of people seem to have seen Bon Iver and Sons & Daughters. Still, there were so many bands and so many parties that it’s hard to imagine any two people seeing the same combination of bands, or even close to it, let alone having the same reaction to everything. And that, in the end, is what’s so beautiful about this festival...and so maddening. You can’t do it all. You can’t even do a good portion of it. Even if you stop eating and sleeping and going to the bathroom, you’re still going to miss more great bands than you can count, and some of them, you won’t even know about until you get home.

So in a world full of choices, here are some guiding principles.

1. Seek extremity. SXSW is full of subcultures, only the largest and blandest of which reflect consensus indie taste. Stick to that, and you’ll miss the garage folks at Beerland, the metal guys at Elysium, the alt.country crowd south of Congress...and you’ll hear a lot of people talking on cell phones. Getting outside the convention center area, whether for a drunken rampage at the Yard Dog (Waco Brothers), an impromptu taping of guitar legend Joe Ely, or an all-day beer bash for experimental pop label Home-Tapes, is always a good idea. Likewise, getting outside of the buzz-band circuit, whether for a half-hour hour of solo drumming (Jon Mueller), a string band with attitude (Hoots and Hellmouth), or a long-lost singer-songwriter (Gary Higgins) recharges you. Which is important because…

2. Just because it’s popular doesn’t mean it sucks. Some of the buzz bands are worth seeing. Bon Iver put on one of the best sets I heard all week, at the Pitchfork/Windish party, ground-zero for blogger see-and-be-seeing. There, I admitted it.

3. If you’ve got one chance, take it. An extraordinary proportion of the bands that I really enjoyed -- Half Japanese, the Homosexuals, Gary Higgins, and the Stems -- don’t play very often, haven’t played in decades, or are otherwise off the grid, except for here.

4. Don’t plan everything. When you walk down Sixth Street or Red River, music pours out of every door and paper schedules rattle in the breeze with bands crossed out. You don’t need a spreadsheet to have a good time. For instance, I finally got to see Jay Reatard (after missing 4-5 other shots) when I paused for a second to check out Beerland’s line-up on Saturday. I saw the Felice Brothers, another highlight, mostly because I stopped at Opal Divine’s to use the bathroom.

5. Don’t stress over missed opportunities. Most of the bands here, even the ones at Stubbs with lines that snake around two blocks (hello, Body of War), will play other shows, probably in your town. And here’s the dirty secret: almost nobody plays their best at SXSW, land of short, hits-heavy sets, no covers, and very little room for error. So if you miss the Sadies, one of your very favorite bands, seven or eight times (ahem), relax. They’ll be in Boston someday and they’ll play an even better show.

6. Find time to hang with people. No one was meant to see 55 bands in a week (actually 58, if you count the three I saw at Beerland today, after the whole thing was over). Eat. Have a drink. Talk to Akron/Family about free jazz. Ask the kid with the notebook what’s blown him away. Have a long conversation with a band member’s mother. Human interaction is necessary, even if it means you miss Yeasayer or Times New Viking.

7. You can’t hear the words through earplugs. Which sucks because if you don’t use earplugs, you’ll be going “What?” a lot, and trying to dig the buzz out of your ear canals all day Sunday. Er, what was that? Sorry.

8. There’s always a good spot by the amp. Even at the most crowded shows. Really. Wonder why.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Net Neutrality and the Music Ecosystem: Defending the Last Mile

Still from Whiplash (2014) (Photo by Daniel McFadden - © Courtesy of Sundance Institute) (IMDB)

"...when the history books get written about this era, they'll show that the music community recognized the potential impacts and were strong leaders." An interview with Kevin Erickson of Future of Music Coalition.

Last week, the musician Phil Elverum, a.k.a. Mount Eerie, celebrated the fact that his album A Crow Looked at Me had been ranked #3 on the New York Times' Best of 2017 list. You might expect that high praise from the prestigious newspaper would result in a significant spike in album sales. In a tweet, Elverum divulged that since making the list, he'd sold…six. Six copies.

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.